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In The Dead Horse Society, Kansas City's Dark Fiction Writers Practice Their Craft

C.J. Janovy
The logo on a T-shirt commemorating the Dead Horse Society's fictional Hellzapalooza concert.

Back when he was in college, Mark L. Groves heard something frightening: "None of you will ever be professional authors."

It was his second creative writing class. The first one had been great, with a teacher who gave constructive criticism in a humane way. Now, this second creative writing professor was humiliating him.

Groves had been writing since his fourth-grade class with Mrs. Amos. He still remembers the name of his first story: "Joe Dude Groves vs. Your Monster Here."

"I fought werewolves," he remembers. "I fought giant anacondas. I fought everything imaginable. And won, of course."

But years later, after being ridiculed by that second creative writing professor, Groves didn’t write again for a decade. Then, something stirred inside him.

"I ended up at a cathartic moment, and decided to write a short story about a guy in class who’s beaten and humiliated for a semester, and the horrible event that happens at the end of that. I actually finished the story."

That isn't just a lesson for mean English teachers. It's also a testament to the power of writing groups. After he moved to Kansas City in 2001, Groves was looking for a creative outlet. He discovered the Dead Horse Society, a group of speculative fiction — horror, fantasy, and science fiction — writers who meet regularly to critique each others' work.

Credit Courtesy Mark L. Groves
Mark L. Groves writes and publishes other writers through Magnificent Cowlick Media.

Groves still isn't a professional author (he has a day job creating commercials for Entercom's eight radio stations), but he started a production company called Magnificent Cowlick Media and is publishing the work of Dead Horse Society writers. 

And a couple of years ago, they all went down to a Isabella, Missouri, an unincorporated town in the Ozarks near where Groves grew up. After a weekend of exploring, they all wrote stories around the idea of a massive rock show.

"We had this disaster happen," Groves says gleefully, "in southern Missouri at a concert that goes horribly, heckishly wrong."

Like, really wrong. Let’s just say the Dead Horse Society found rich material in the hills of Southern Missouri.

Growing up there in the '70s, Groves says, "we had cattle mutilations going on – 'Are there UFOs, aliens comin’ down and eatin’ our moo cows?' There was a place One World, which was a very spooky place — as a teenager, it was like, 'You can't go.' There’s all these histories and mysteries."

Grove published the stories in Hellzapalooza: The Best DAMNED Rock Show Ever, in 2012. He learned about the challenges of self-publishing. Since then, he’s published two more story collections. Black Buttons Vol. 1, in 2014, and the new Black Buttons, Vol. 2.

The title Black Buttons, Grove says, is based on an old Ozark wives tale that says if you're sick, you must be cursed.

"So you take a black button or dark button and you put your curse into it and you toss it on the road. If someone else picks it up they pick up the curse that goes along with it," Groves says.

He's finding audiences for these stories, selling his books at regional art fairs, Comic Cons and horror conventions.

"You think it was all boy town, but it's not," Grove says. "The women who helped me with Black Buttons Volume 1 and Hellzapalooza wrote some great" — he shrieks for emphasis — "stories."

Laura Hardenbrook is Dead Horse Society's co-founder and president.

"We’ve got a veterinarian, we have someone who works for the United States government in the military, we have someone who works for the Social Security Administration, we have had people who were studying to be neurosurgeons," Hardenbrook says. "We have an administrator at a hospital, we have people who are stay-at-home mothers and fathers."

Regular people. Their purpose in getting together a couple of times a month at the Old Chicago on Metcalf is to be better writers. But, why do they want to write horror and darkness? Hardenbrook defers to the famous fantasy writer Sir Terry Pratchett.

Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR
Laura Hardenbrook is co-founder and president of the Dead Horse Society, Kansas City's Speculative Fiction Writing Group.

"I think the quote is: 'No matter how fast light travels it always finds that the darkness has gotten there first,'" she says. "I just think that in order for there to be the light you have to have the darkness."

There’s also, she says, just the fact that human beings can be so beastly to each other.

"I think that's where the real drama comes from: We’re all stuck here together. And if we’re not working with each other, if we're working against each other — " Hardenbrook laughs at all of the awful implications.

And if you’re Mark Groves, you set all that material in the supposedly boring Midwest.

"There's so much here," he says. "From happy stories to Little House on the Prairie to 'Little Nightmare on the Prairie' that we got cookin'."

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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